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N.Y. rail plan hikes speed

(The following article by Cathy Woodruff was posted on the Albany Times-Union website on March 17.)

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno will announce today an ambitious plan that he hopes will put New York's high-speed rail aspirations, stalled amid bickering between state and Amtrak officials, back on track.

The Rensselaer County Republican will propose a reinvigorated rail corridor starting in New York City and extending for the first time beyond the Capital Region to Buffalo featuring trains traveling 200 mph or faster, according to people familiar with the details of Bruno's proposal.

Bruno's proposal aims to cut travel time from Buffalo to New York City from more than eight hours to just over three hours. The trip from the Albany-Rensselaer station in Rensselaer would take just 1 hours.

Bruno is scheduled to unveil his plan during an address today to some of the area's top business leaders at Albany International Airport.

The plan would need the support of Gov. George Pataki and the Democrat-led Assembly.

Bruno declined comment Wednesday. His spokeswoman, Lisa Black, said the senator has been intrigued by the prospect of high-speed rail throughout the state.

"The idea has been out there and he has been very interested in pursuing it," Black said.

Bruno's proposal is more far-reaching than a $185 million high-speed rail program launched in 1998 by Pataki. That plan was to employ a fleet of reconditioned 1970s-vintage Turboliners traveling at speeds of up to 125 mph between New York City and the Capital Region.

The trains were supposed to shave 20 minutes from the current 2-hour, 20-minute trip between Rensselaer and New York City, and most of the fleet was to be in operation by 2001. But the track work necessary to enable the trains to travel at those speeds was never completed, and Amtrak, which was supposed to pay for much of the work, says it no longer has the money to do it.

Amtrak has mothballed the three trains that were completed by Super Steel Schenectady at its Delaware yards, citing concerns about heating and air conditioning problems, and the state is suing Amtrak for its decision to drop out of the program.

Difficulties in marrying modern European train technology with the old American-made trains, unexpected mechanical issues and asbestos removal delayed completion of the trains and contributed to soaring costs. The estimated cost rebuilding the trains swelled from $53 million to more than $74 million.

Bruno's plan would allocate $5 million in the 2005-06 state budget to study the feasibility of the trans-state high-speed rail system, estimate a total cost and lay the groundwork for inclusion of program funds in next year's state budget.

Those familiar with the proposal declined comment Wednesday on what rail and train technologies the feasibility study would examine and whether the reconditioned Rohr Turboliners might play any part in the service.

They said the plan would be designed to move forward whether or not Amtrak remains in the picture.

The future of the financially ailing railroad is in doubt after the Bush administration proposed to eliminate all federal funding. The money is expected to run out by Oct. 1 unless Amtrak supporters in Congress can muster enough votes to restore funding.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

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